Flight Simulator X Hands On Preview


posted 9/7/2006 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble
One Page Platforms: PC
The preview build provides a couple dozen or so of these missions, but I don't know how many will be included in the release package. Hopefully Microsoft will (or has) publish a development kit or tool suite to allow anyone to create add-on missions, in much the same way that there are thousands of independently developed aircraft available both commercially and via free download for previous versions of Flight Simulator. These add-ons have historically kept the program fresh and interesting and I don't see any reason why that shouldn't continue to be the case.
Another new feature that I found extremely useful was the ability to set a transparency level for the 2D instrument panel. It has always been difficult to see over the top of the panel in certain situations, primarily landing. As you raise the airplane's nose to slow it down and fly an appropriate angle of attack for landing, the panel often blocks your view of the runway, which is no treat for the pilot. With the ability to make the panel transparent, you can now have the best of both worlds. You can have the same high-resolution instrument panel provided in the 2D view, but you can also see the approaching runway. The 3D panel is still available, of course, and if the TrackIR functionality was built into the preview release, that would be my primary choice. Absent that, however, I'm finding the transparent 2D panel to be a suitable substitute.
As is usual with new versions of flight sim, there are also new aircraft included. While you could always supplement your fleet by either buying or downloading new planes, it's nice to have Microsoft include a few new ones. Their development standards are very high, and the same cannot always be said of third party developers. That's not to say that you can't find top quality add-on planes available as free downloads, because that is certainly not the case. It is the case, though, that you may have to download 10 clunkers to find one really good one. The new planes included in FSX include a seaplane, a regional jet airliner, an ultralight, a float plane, and a plane with both wheels and skis. Having "flown" all of them, I find them to be terrific additions to the already large fleet.
Also improved in FSX is the visual environment. The previous environment was arguably somewhat sterile, but the new iteration includes things like moving cars, boats, and airport equipment. There's just something about seeing a truck driving down the road as you're landing that helps with the suspension of disbelief that is such an important factor in simulations. In fact, I had to make a last second go-around when landing on a lake as a small boat drove right in front of me. Again, that adds so much authenticity to the simulated flight that it's scary! Beyond the addition of moving objects, the scenery engine has also been improved. The ground and weather rendering have both had incremental improvements that while still far short of photo-realistic are still quite compelling.
All that said, no review of a new version would be complete without addressing some of the things you wish had been included. For me, that would be more responsive and fluid-like movements of the instruments. Microsoft flight sims have always suffered from comparatively bad performance in this regard. It seems that the updating of the instruments is not prioritized highly enough in the refreshing of the screens. You might be seeing 30 frames per second out the window, but the instruments often seem to be refreshing at a much lower rate. That's unfortunate as it creates difficulty when flying purely on reference to the instruments. This may simply be a matter of my perception, but having seen the extremely smooth operation of the instruments in competing simulators like X-Plane, I think there is really a technical issue here. As I noted before, I'd also like to see the co-pilot in the big iron pull their weight in a more realistic manner.
I'm not sure how FSX will be received in the market. While there are clearly improvements in the sim, they come at a cost: unless the third-party add-ons that have cropped up for the previous version will run flawlessly in the new version, there will be a subset of people that don't want to have to go through the hassle of waiting for the add-ons to be updated to support the new version. Sometimes good enough is good enough, and the additional features of the updated version won't be sufficient to prod everyone into upgrading. This is, of course, not a foreign concept to Microsoft as they deal with it routinely in the Windows and Office worlds.

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